The Defense of Migrants

The executive orders on immigration, as well as directives to enforce those issued by the Department of Homeland Security, have caused enormous anxiety and fear among the roughly 6 million Mexican workers who live in the United States. Their defense is, at the moment, a part of the complex redefinition of Mexico-U.S. relations under Donald Trump’s administration.

One aspect that is garnering attention is the extent to which the intention to deport Mexican workers violates human rights standards enshrined in both the U.S. Constitution and in developed international law, principally under the auspices of global or regional organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States.

Bearing this in mind, over the last few days, the Mexican government and opposition leaders have taken action at multilateral meetings in search of solidarity with the defense of Mexican migrants. As an example of the former, you can cite the speech given by the undersecretary of multilateral affairs at the anniversary session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. As an example of the latter, take the visit of Andrés Manuel López Obrador delivering a document to the offices of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington.

The objective of these actions is commendable. They help draw the attention of the international community to the extent to which anti-immigrant measures, built on racist and xenophobic sentiments, endanger international peace and security. It should be emphasized that the problem is not only with Mexicans in the United States; we must not lose sight of the tragic consequences that the rejection of immigrants has had on weakening the European Union and the rise of far-right parties in Europe.

However, getting results in multilateral meetings that go beyond a visit or a speech in a plenary session is not an easy task. What has been done so far is a significant but obviously insufficient step. For action in multilateral meetings to make a permanent mark it would require, at least, a document approved by the U.N. General Assembly or the OAS in which obligations and responsibilities of the member states as well as follow-up mechanisms are established. However, securing a document of this kind is almost impossible if we take into account the strong divisions that exist between the interests and views of countries who are sending and receiving immigrants.

From this ethical and humanitarian point of view, a central principle would be, for example, protecting the reunion of families and always avoiding the separation of migrant parents and children. However, the American directive to separate parents and children has been issued by the Department of Homeland Security as a way of discouraging the immigration of Mexicans to the United States.

One could provide many examples that demonstrate views which oppose the protection of human rights shown by countries receiving immigrants, from Hungary, where they have built fences to prevent immigrants from entering their country, to Australia, where they confine immigrants to nearby islands. It is interesting to take into account the existence of a clearly polarized and divided international context. This contributes to explaining why, despite several years of searching for a legally binding treaty on the human rights of migrant workers under the auspices of the United Nations, it has not been possible to achieve the necessary unanimity to secure a text that can be recognized and ratified by both sending and receiving countries. Without that unanimity, such an agreement will suffer from great weakness.

The case of Mexico clearly illustrates these contradictory forces working against the defense of migrant workers. We are a country sending migrants to the north, and we are also a receiver of migrants and trans-migrants from the southern border. The governmental position toward each of them is very different. While the former represent an economic window, the remittance of which reaches, and sometimes exceeds, that obtained from tourism, the latter are seen through a lens of national security as a threat to the country.

It is not our intention here to engage in a serious analysis of southern border immigration management. We are dealing with a broad problem that, among other things, forms a significant part of the design of the relationship with the United States that will emerge in the coming weeks or years. Placing it within the context of reflection of action in multilateral meetings is useful to raise awareness of how difficult it is to have homogenous positions that allow progress toward more stringent international regulation.

There is one last point that should be added to assess the scope and limitations of Mexican action in multilateral meetings. From a governmental point of view, at the moment relationship issues with the United States—deportations, renegotiation of NAFTA and security—have their own time frames and dynamics. The deportations are at the center of everyone’s attention, while the renegotiation of NAFTA has fallen behind. However, the three themes are intertwined and the voices of government in the multilateral forums will rise or fall as needed to maintain the constructive climate and dialogue with the United States that it is trying to protect. Another is the situation for non-state actors whose insistence and degree of aggressiveness will also depend upon their objectives in terms of the electoral struggle.

In summary, to speak of human rights in multilateral meetings accomplishes a positive but limited function. It is not an insignificant end, but an action whose achievements are very relative and with different dividends for the migrants themselves, the prestige of the government and the ends of the opposition.

This analysis was published in the 2017 edition of Proceso magazine, March 19, 2017.

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